Hi friends! Today I am sharing a piece I wrote last year with a friend. Here is some background and at the bottom of the post is the link to the recording. I hope you enjoy it! 🙂
The Story of “Teach My Heart to See” as told by Laura Harper
(Music and Lyrics by Shaillé Claypool and Laura Harper)
“Teach My Heart to See” was one of the most enjoyable music writing experiences I’ve had yet. Mainly this was because it was my first collaboration with a talented musician- Shaillé Claypool. Shaillé is my friend’s daughter’s friend- and now my good friend and collaborator! My friend Marlene “happened” to mention a woman in Spokane Valley who is writing music similar to mine, and I knew immediately that I needed to talk to her. The next day our phone conversation flowed easily as we discussed music and the experiences we have had that are related. It was unbelievable how similar our stories are (our husbands are both optometrists!), and we felt like Heavenly Father had brought us together- there was no other way to explain how directed this potential collaboration felt.
As I finished “Master of Colors”, Shaillé was working on a draft of lyrics for “Seeing with the Heart”, a title which would change names two other times in the process. I couldn’t believe how fast she could crank out full lyrics- it blew me away! The lyrics sat waiting for me in my inbox as I finished my other project, and then I sat down to work on the music. I found that without worrying about the lyrics, the music flowed much more freely than it ever had. The process was playful and joyful, and experimental, and I soon emailed her a “skeleton” of the music portion with the lyrics typed in. I had been learning a lot about Alan Menkin, so some of my writing reflects what I learned from videos I watched about his writing process and methods. Once we had both initially generated part of the song, we became full co-creators- working on both the lyrics and the music, working mainly through email, though we had the opportunity to work together in person on one exciting Saturday!
A week before Easter, I was given the opportunity to sing the following Sunday (on Easter) during Sunday School. I immediately thought of “our song” and wondered if we could finish the details in one week and have it ready to share. Shaillé and I decided we were willing to try. It was a busy week of working out the kinks, but the Saturday of Easter weekend, the sheet music was finalized and ready to share.
I love this piece of music- it’s living and vibrant. The words and lyrics are authentic and brim full with testimony. Our hope is that this Easter season, and any time that the music is heard, it will strengthen faith and perhaps provide a glimpse of what was once invisible!
Many do not have the privilege of having a relationship into adulthood with their Grandparents, not to mention Great-grandparents. I have been blessed to have known well all 4 of my grandparents, all of whom have had an impact on my life in various ways. This week my Grandad Gates was the first of my grandparents to pass from this life to the next.
His name was known by many in the world (he was a well-known composer and symphony conductor), but to me, he was my Grandad. When I was little, our family took occasional road trips from Washington to Wisconsin so we could visit Grannie and Grandad (and for reunions with the Gates family as in the photo above). We spent a lot of time all together on those trips, but I remember one specific bonding moment when Grandad invited me into his study alone, set me on his lap, and played a game of memory with me on his computer. I don’t remember much else, except that when I walked out of that study, I felt smarter than when I had entered. He had a knack for building people up and helping them see the best in themselves.
Grannie and Grandad have celebrated many major milestones with me: my baptism, my graduation, and my wedding (photo above) to name a few. They have been able to know my husband, support us in our marriage, and they have celebrated several special occasions with us as our little family has grown. What a blessing that my children know their great-grandparents!
Several years ago when I had just begun writing my first piece, my oldest son commented to his brother, “Mom is writing music, just like Grandad does!”
Grandad was in his mid-nineties and lived a wonderful, full live, so there is much to rejoice over about his life, and little to mourn. We will miss his presence here, and yet we can only imagine the happy reunions in heaven.
As I prepared to put the finalizing details on “Come Home” last week, I had an interesting experience. We had received news that Grandad Gates had been hospitalized due to a heart attack the weekend before, but it looked like he was on the mend, and would bounce back as he has done many times in the past. But on Monday, the news was not nearly as optimistic, and it was not a hard leap to see that we may not have much time left with him.
My first thought when I read the email sharing the most recent updates about Grandad was “Tonight I will finish “Come Home” and send it to Grannie and Grandad Gates.” I thought it might be an enjoyable distraction for Grannie, spending many hours in a hospital. And in case it was the last time I’d have the chance, I wanted to share with Grandad one last piece that I had written- from one composer to the other. So I finished the last details and sent it off.
Grandad stabilized enough for him to be moved to an assisted living facility a few days after his heart attack. Then less than 24 hours later, his spirit was freed and he returned to his Heavenly home. Grandad left a larger-than-life legacy behind, and there are so many things that I could share in memory of him here, including many inspiring pieces of music that he composed. But I keep reflecting on the one-on-one experiences I’ve had with him that are mine alone to treasure and share. I’ll share two experiences that had a particular impact on me.
When I was 19 and going to college at BYU (Provo, Utah), I lived closer to my Grandparents than I ever had been before. They lived in Wisconsin during my early years (while we were in Washington State) and then they moved to Utah. So it was a neat opportunity to live close by, and develop an adult relationship with them.
One day on a visit to my Grandparents’ home, I was in Grandad’s study and somehow we got on the topic of dying. He had probably said something offhand about dying someday. I asked him if he was afraid of dying (because I sure was!). He very emphatically said, “No, I’m not.” And then he went on to explain: “When we die, it’s like walking from one room in our house to the next room. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
I’ve never forgotten that conversation. Grandad was not afraid to die.
The second was an experience I had in my parent’s home in Washington State. Grannie and Grandad Gates had come to visit and I was there for the occasion as well. I had started composing music about a year before, and had found that although it was exhilarating, I struggled with self-doubt and perfectionism as I wrote every phrase. I sat down next to him in the living room and engaged Grandad in a discussion. I asked him some questions and I wrote down some key things he shared. Here are a few of the nuggets:
-None of us are perfect, but we are DANG GOOD!
-You must not be negative about yourself- that is a decision.
-Thank the Lord for the gift you’ve been given and ask him to magnify it on the next go.
-Be the best YOU can be- not compared to anyone else- not me (Grandad) or anyone else.
-If you are finding joy in writing music and time flies, that means you’ve joined the club; I think Beethoven must have felt that way too.
Many years ago, Grandad arranged the hymn “O My Father” (one of my favorites). The words to verse 4 are so appropriate as we say goodbye to a dear Grandfather:
When I leave this frail existence,
When I lay this mortal by,
Father, Mother, may I meet you
In your royal courts on high?
Then, at length, when I’ve completed
All you sent me forth to do,
With your mutual approbation
Let me come and dwell with you.
~O My Father
Grannie and Grandad Gates celebrating a special baptism day (my second son) last summer!
(There are many pictures of this wonderful couple I could end on, but currently this one is my favorite. Here they are sitting with a great-grandson between them, filling him and us with their love and support. They couldn’t miss this occasion to celebrate!)
My little 5 year old has brought up several times how nervous he is for his first gymnastics lesson tomorrow. Yesterday I sat him on my lap and we talked about it. “That’s a normal feeling,” I told him. “Everyone feels nervous when they try new things!” We talked about how many new things he’s tried that he felt nervous about, and how glad we both are that he didn’t let fear stop him. In fact, one of my favorite quotes says, “Courage doesn’t mean you don’t get afraid. Courage means you don’t let fear stop you!” (Unfortunately, I don’t know who to credit the quote to!)
Fear is such a funny thing, isn’t it? There was one day this year that should have been the scariest: the one where we thought my husband was having a heart attack. But the crazy thing is that I functioned in a very peaceful place as we did what had to be done (get a barf bowl in case he threw up in the car, called a friend to watch the kids, and ran to the hospital where they could assess the chest pains). I felt comforted, knowing that a loving Father in Heaven was watching over us and it would be okay, no matter what.
You want to know something really silly? The scariest moments this year were the ones where there was no real imminent danger, like sitting down at the piano and wondering (cue the fear) if I could make up anything original. What a 1st world problem! It feels so trivial, and yet telling myself doesn’t make the emotion any less real.
Last week my husband and I enjoyed a wonderful getaway (more on that another day!), and while we were gone I discovered a really interesting book by Kenny Werner entitled “Effortless Mastery.” His overall discussion centered on the idea that when we focus on playing an instrument really well, we freeze up and usually perform poorly. When we let go of expectation (which he said is driven by fear) and allow ourselves to embrace whatever it is that we are playing, we free ourselves up to create something really beautiful.
Here is an interesting quote from his book: “Nothing is so inhibiting as needing to write something brilliant. Once a good friend of mine was writing an opera and really experiencing a block. He was duly tormented, believing that ‘composing is a painful process.’ He talked wistfully about a certain opera as being considered ‘the greatest opera since World War Two.’ I told him, ‘It sounds to me like you are trying to write the greatest opera since Desert Storm! I have an idea. Why don’t you just write a bad opera? That should be easy.’
My friend laughed uncomfortably with me, but I could sympathize with his dilemma. You always want to do well, but the recurring paradox is that you have a much better chance of doing well if you let go of the anxiety and just get on with it. Try writing three bad pieces a day. I bet you can’t do it. Your talent will sabotage you and cause some great music to come out! Another composer-friend of mine told me, ‘Kenny, I know that that just doesn’t work. I’ve written a ton of bad pieces over the last thirty years, and it hasn’t done anything for me.’ I said to him, ‘Ah yes, but did you ever try to write a bad piece? That is the liberation that I’m talking about!'”
Ha! Such a simple idea and yet brilliant because it allows me to “get out of my own way.” I find that two questions can also help me bypass that anxious feeling when I sit down to compose. I can ask myself, “What am I afraid of?” This can provide the same reassurance that a child receives when he is afraid of the the dark at bedtime: a parent flips on the light to show the child that the shadows were only an illusion and there is really nothing to be afraid of.
The second question is, “What do I love about composing?” There is a verse in the Bible (1 John 4:18) that states, “Perfect love casteth out fear.” I have always figured that verse had to do with relationships, or at least that is the only way I have ever applied it. But the funny thing that I’m learning is that love and fear can’t really coexist in myself- there is not really room for both! When I flip the switch to what I love, it seems to push out the fear and redirect my mind to focus on the good. Hmmm. A good thought to keep in my back pocket!
So I guess the question isn’t so much “who feels fear”, but “what do you do so that fear doesn’t stop you?”
What do you think of daylilies? If you were to rank your top 5 favorite flowers, would the daylily make the cut? It didn’t used to be all that spectacular for me- but it has recently become my favorite flower.
Last week I had a conversation with a friend who was patiently hearing me out about my most recent crisis. After rehearsing a vocal musical number with a group of wonderful ladies, my voice was almost completely gone. I went to tell my three boys (who were in an adjoining room) that it was time to go and my voice sounded croaky and weak. I went in excited and thought it was a great opportunity to work on technique and figure out how to get that illusive vibrato to “work” that I hadn’t yet mastered. I went home sure that something was completely and beyond-repair wrong with my voice. Did I not use my diaphragm correctly? Was I forcing the vibrato? More likely I just never was any good at singing in the first place. You guessed it- I was in the middle of an anxiety spiral.
After a gush of tears and a good night’s rest, I was able to see it for what it was. My friend listened patiently later that week as I told her my story. She replied that she could relate, and then asked this question: “What is it that you love about singing?” Perhaps it was the simplicity that startled me. Asking myself that question over the next week surfaced some unanticipated thoughts- deep-seated fears and beliefs that I hadn’t even known were there. The strongest (obviously distorted) thought that surfaced had to do with the fact that my voice would never be worth sharing until I figured out the vibrato.
It became apparent to me that in order to get back to what I loved about singing, I had to let go of these distorted thoughts and accept what my voice sounds like right now; not what it will sound like with vibrato, or what it should sound like with the right support. And suddenly I knew that I had discovered something important.
As I processed these thoughts in a quiet moment, I unexpectedly came across a painting. Across a rich forest green background of trees and foliage was painted a field of daylilies in brilliant orange. It took me back to my childhood home- the farm house. You see, when my Grandma- a master gardener- moved out of the farmhouse, she left her beautiful flowers in our care. As a busy family of seven we found it difficult to find the time (and priority?) that she did to care for the flowers. I remember one particular instance (there may have been several) where my dad joked, “The only flower we can keep alive is daylilies. So….we’re going to do daylilies!” And we did. I’m hoping to dig out a photo of the daylilies that my parents planted all along our front deck at some future point to show you. They were beautiful.
In the moment I saw the painting, the thought that came to my mind was clear: “So…do daylilies.” Who cares if you can’t make roses grow right now. Don’t throw away the dream of what you want in the future. You’ll get there. But for this moment, right now, whatever you CAN do, do that! And do a lot of it. Do it your best, and do it in the way that only you can. So there you are. Acceptance. And do you know what? I really LOVE singing again.
Woah! Condense the message, add a melody, fill in the accompaniment, and this could be a song! Hmmm…